Viewing sea monsters from the perspectives of both a sailor and a classicist inspired Georgia Irby’s curiosity about what’s behind all the frothy fear down through the ages.
Irby, professor of classical studies at William & Mary, will discuss how her perspectives connect in the fall 2022 Tack Faculty Lecture, “Sea Monsters! ‘O Brave new seas that have such monsters in them,’” on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public with a reception to follow, and attendees are asked to RSVP.
“It seems like a natural synthesis for me because I love the water and I love animals,” Irby said. “So, at some point the two should merge. I’m also on the volunteer maintenance and sail crew at Jamestown Settlement, which also sparked and encouraged this interest.”
Irby researches the history of Greek and Roman science with a focus on cartography, geography and hydrology in the ancient Mediterranean. Her course Why Water Matters grew into a two-volume book project, and she has a forthcoming paper on the topic. The course is an exploration of all aspects of Greco-Roman society, focused on how the ancients interacted with and interpreted the natural world, with a focus on water.
After being asked to write a book chapter on sea monsters and recently teaching mythology, which is another passion of hers, Irby pursued the research further. Her lecture will cover how sea monsters are conceptualized from various components as well as what they represent.
“They’re all over those medieval maps,” Irby said. “There are all these stories about sea monsters, whether they’re real or not. Are they dinosaurs? What are they?”
They also tie into how humans interpret and control the natural world, Irby said. As a sailor herself, she can identify with the fear of the worst thing that can happen at sea — a storm.
“Essentially the way they try to control it, which they can’t, is by imagining that there are sea monsters there,” Irby said. “The existence of the sea monsters makes the storm even worse. And there are all these passages in literature where the sailors are wondering about the sea monsters that are lurking below the choppy waters.”
Vignettes in classical literature about how terrifying and destructive sea monsters are create an extra layer of concern and fear for those at sea, Irby said. From ancient mythology to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” to “Moby Dick,” imaginative stories abound.
“Sea monster fights also are a subset of the classic dragon tale,” Irby said. “In Greek mythology, Hercules fights a sea monster; Perseus fights a sea monster. It’s another way for great heroes to control some dangerous, wild, uncontrollable aspects of the natural world.”
Irby examines how many of the stories originate in Greek and Roman mythology, as well as how biological sea creatures led to the idea of sea gods and sea monsters.
“For me, sea monsters are the perfect amalgamation of my academic self as a historian of science and my private self as a lifelong lover of animals and wannabe sailor,” Irby said.
The Tack Faculty Lecture Series is made possible through a generous commitment by Martha ’78 and Carl Tack ’78. Initially launched in 2012, the Tacks’ commitment has created an endowment for the series of speakers from the W&M faculty.
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist